The Promise of the Passion

Yes, it is Holy Week.  Yes, it is a week of rehearsing and praying and worshipping and making a lot of music for me. And yes, since it is Holy Week, it is time for our 6th (can you believe it), Music for Good Friday program.  This year, we are performing Carl Heinrich Graun’s Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus), premiered in 1755.  If you are interested, below are the program notes for this Friday’s performance.

The Music for Good Friday program, which has been so gratefully housed and supported by my beloved Calvary Baptist Church, has been a workshop for me in so many ways — a chance to learn and grow both theologically and musically.  Finally, this year, I must have been ready to confront ideas about atonement, so we are presenting a sung Passion Cantata.  It is a challenge both musically and spiritually, but I hope will be a meaningful experience for everyone in the room.

If you are in town, please come (the details are here).  If not, maybe after you read my notes below, you will listen to the music (which can be purchased on ITunes).  In either case, may you have a blessed Holy Week and may Easter come to your life again very, very soon.

About Tonight’s Program

The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, once wrote: “It is not the act of a good disciple to flee from the Cross in order to enjoy the sweetness of easy piety.” Tonight, we do not flee.

We’ve called our program The Promise of the Passion, because, if we are Christian, we gather tonight to remember Jesus at his most human, at that time in the liturgical calendar set aside to remember his physical death. We weep for his humanity and for our own, as we wonder what is next. But even in our sorrow and our fear, we know that there is a promise in his suffering, a promise of hope and light for us. And if we are not practicing Christians, we gather simply because we are human ourselves and experience in that humanness the same trials and challenges that are part of Jesus’ story on this day.

What Do We Mean by Passion?

The Passion is theological term used for the events and suffering – physical, spiritual, and mental – of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. The Crucifixion of Jesus is an event central to Christian beliefs.

The origin of the word is Greek, from the verb paschō, to suffer.  Those parts of the four Gospels that describe these events are known as the “Passion narratives”.  In the liturgical calendar, Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Saturday, commemorates the events of the Passion narrative.

Why Do We Sing the Passion Story

If we are lovers of classical vocal music, when we hear the word “Passion” in relationship to music, we first think of the Passion settings by J. S. Bach.  While his great works, the St. Matthew Passion and the Passion of St. John, may be the most often performed and the most familiar to us, they are just two works among a large liturgical genre that reached its zenith in the first half of the 18th century in Germany.

The reading of the Passion from one of the Gospels during Holy Week dates back at least to the 4th century. In the 5th century Pope Leo the ordered the gospel of Matthew to be read on Palm Sunday and the following Wednesday and that of John on Good Friday. The practice of singing the Passion began in the Middle Ages, possibly as early as the 8th century. By the 13th century different singers were used for different characters in the narrative.  The 15th century polyphonic settings began to add turba passages (turba, while literally meaning “crowd,” is used in this case to mean any passage in which more than one speaker speaks simultaneously).

In the later 15th century a number of new styles began to emerge, that led us to the type of Passion setting we will hear tonight:  the Summa Passionis, a poetic text that draws on the events of all four Gospel narratives.  Familiar works in this genre include The Seven Last Words of Christ by Franz Joseph Haydn and the version by Theodore Dubois, as well as The Crucifixion by John Stainer.

The work we hear tonight, like the Passions of J.S. Bach, is a creation of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.  Martin Luther believed that the suffering of Christ must be experienced by all who believe and not through words alone.  And so, the sung Passion, the Passion Cantata and the Passion Oratorio became important sacred music genres in the German states of the day.

Church Music in 18th Century Germany

In our present day, Passion music such as we hear tonight rarely appears in a liturgical setting.  Even if the performance we attend is set in a church, as it is tonight, we generally will experience this music in a concert setting.  But in the composer’s day, the crowds arriving at church to experience this music would come not just for the music but for the worship:  a Passion setting would be part of a larger service, often 4 or 5 hours long, including other music before or after, one or more sermons, and multiple prayers.  The music took the place of the readings – it told the story of Good Friday in the form of music.   The singing of the Passion would also be the first concerted music (music with instruments) that was offered in church during the entire season of Lent, a time of austerity and reflection, during which instrumental music was banned from service.

And, most likely, the performing forces would have been similar to what you see and hear tonight.  We know from the performing parts that remain to us from the 18th century that singing forces were organized in a similar fashion to that of the instrumental performers:  there were concerti singers (soloists, who sang all parts in the choruses and chorales as well) and ripieni singers (who were applied to specific movements to broaden the fullness and the impact of the sound). 

Carl Heinrich Graun (1703 or 1704-1759)

Carl Heinrich Graun was a very famous man in his day, even though he is virtually unknown to any but the most serious Baroque music specialist today. A contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse, George Phillip Telemann, and of J. S. Bach, he was well-known and celebrated composer of his time, and a tenor, Kapellmeister to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and founder of the Italian Opera in Berlin. With all that accomplishment, even in his day, Graun was most famous for his religious music, and in particular, for the work that we perform this night, Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus).

Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus)

Tonight, the work we perform is made of music by Graun set to a text by the poet Carl Wilhem Ramler (1725-1798), a very popular devotional text, set to music by Graun, and Telemann  and J C F Bach (son of J.S.), among others.  Graun’s setting of Der Tod Jesu received its first performance on the Wednesday of Holy Week in 1755  in Berlin’s Domkirche (Cathedral), “in the presence of an uncommonly large crowd,” according to contemporary sources.  Telemann’s version premiered a week earlier in Hamburg.
Der Tod Jesu, often called a Passion Cantata (as compared to a Passion Oratorio such as those written by Bach and Telemann, that assign arias to specific characters in the drama) continued its popularity in Berlin through the 19th century, with its last Holy Week performance in 1894 before its revival as a concert work in the late 20th century. 

The text was published in 1760 as part of a trilogy:  Geistliche Kantaten:  Der Tod Jesus (1754), Die Hirten bei der Krippe Zu Bethlehem (1757) and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfart Jesu (1760)[i].  These libretti are the most frequently set texts for German cantatas and oratorios in the second half of the 18th century. Ramler’s text does not attempt to recount, step by step, the events of the narrative, but instead focuses on gift of redemption offered to Christians in the moment of sacrifice.  The result is a meditation on the Passion story, including familiar hymns, poetry and parallel Biblical texts designed to expand the listener’s experience of the event.

While the argument about whether or not the passions are “dramatic” works or not continues to rage in the musical world, we can see from the structure that Graun’s Der Tod Jesu is a purely sacred work.  No Evangelist, no direct representation of Jesus or Peter or any other character graces the pages.  In fact, you will hear the women sing some of the most famous of the seven last words of Christ.   

The structure is quite simple:  each recitative describes an important event in the story and the following aria comments on the event.  For example, in the recitative No. 6, “Ach, mein Immanuel”, the mezzo-soprano describes the events in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Apostles sleep rather than watch as asked.  The last line is:  “O wake and pray, Brothers!”. The following aria, “Ein Gebet um neue Stärke”, comments on the importance of prayer.

The work also includes both Chorales (originally hymn tunes sung by the congregation) and choruses.  The chorales provide a moment of rest and reflection for the listener: familiar tunes, set with text that underscores the meaning of what they have just hear or are about to hear.  The chorale was a central feature of the Lutheran liturgy of the day. The choruses provide the commentary of the crowd (the turba) on the segment of the story in the following section.

As is often the case with Baroque music, our modern ears may experience this work as well, inappropriately cheerful for the subject matter. However, the tone is completely appropriate to the theological vision of the Enlightenment in which it was written.  Jesus was worshipped primarly as a hero (a theory of atonement that theologians label as “Christus Victor”, and the Passion story was set to music that reflected the great joy brought to humankind through the efforts of his suffering and death.

Tonight, we will be performing from the Carus Verlag edition 10.379, edited by Herbert Lölkes.

About the Concert Series

Calvary Presents… is a performance series created to showcase the work of local artists and arts organizations, residing at and supported by the ministry of the Calvary Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. For more information, visit our website,

Six Years Ago…

Six years ago, before I was a member of this community, when hardly anyone knew anything about me, the wonderful, loving and faith-filled members of this church welcomed my proposal for the first Music for Good Friday concert.  That night, we performed music by Pergolesi and Donizetti, and we remembered:  we remembered the events of Good Friday, and the man who brought music into my life again, my first teacher, Michael Patterson.

Six years later, we are here again, singing, playing and remembering, remembering the ever-present sacrifice of this day, remembering 150 years of worship and faith that have lived on this corner in Washington, DC; remembering that we are a community formed to live out the mission of the Gospel about which we sing, whatever that may mean.

I am most personally grateful for the chance to make wonderful, meaningful music here, with all that has meant to my own life and my own spiritual journey.  The fact that this program exists is a testament to the amazing openness and faith of this congregation, its inspiring pastor the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, its lay leadership, the hard work of our Mission Board, our music staff and our guest performers, and most especially, our talented and energetic music director, Dr. Cheryl Branham. 

As performers, we feel blessed by the opportunity to speak through music, especially the opportunity to speak for those whose voices are muted and ignored.  We hope that if some part of this evening’s music moves or inspires you, you will consider helping these students who thirst for education, who thirst to honor the sacrifice about which we sing tonight.                                                                                              (Susan Sevier)

[i] Sacred Cantatas:  The Death of Jesus (1754), The Shepherds at the Cradle in Bethlehem (1757), and  The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (1760)

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